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Open for Debate

The Value of Thinking for Yourself

10 January 2022

Why think for yourself? Sometimes thinking for yourself is necessary. Sometimes you are the expert, sometimes the experts (or their beliefs) are too hard to identify, and sometimes there’s not enough time to consult the relevant experts. However, at other times you can identify the experts as well as what they believe. In situations like this, what can be gained by thinking for yourself – by getting the relevant evidence for yourself and evaluating it for yourself? Why not simply defer to the experts? After all, the experts are more reliable at getting the answer. They are better positioned to determine the answer to your question since they either have more information or are better equipped to evaluate the relevant information, or both.

While deferring to the experts can be appropriate, and good, there are reasons to think for yourself instead of simply deferring. Here I’ll outline three such reasons.

First, only in thinking for yourself can you come to understand the answer to your question. By deferring to the experts you can get the answer to your question, but knowing the answer and understanding the answer are different things, and it is better to understand. To understand an answer, you have to see it for yourself, you have to grasp it. You cannot understand an answer simply by accepting it on the basis of testimony. For instance, think about those math textbooks that have the answers in the back of the book. Suppose you are working on question 37 in Chapter 6. One thing to do is to look at the back of the book. Suppose the book says that the answer is -13. The author of the textbook is an expert. You can reasonably trust that they got this right. So, you can just believe the answer is -13. In fact, you can know that the answer is -13 due to their written testimony in the book. However, by simply believing the answer because it is what is written in the back of the book, you can’t come to see why the answer is -13. You can’t understand that the answer is -13 without thinking through the problem on your own. The same is true of inquiry more broadly. Answers to many questions are out there for us to believe on the basis of expert testimony. However, if all we do is believe what the experts say, we will never come to understand those answers for ourselves. We won’t be able to see why they are correct. Understanding has value over and above knowledge, and this value can only be attained by thinking for yourself.

A second reason to think for yourself has to do with your ability to manage new information. When you think for yourself, you get the relevant reasons in front of you. You see the reasons for yourself. An advantage of seeing the reasons for yourself is that doing so enables you to appropriately update your beliefs in light of new information on the topic. If you merely defer to the experts, then you are unaware of the reasons for which they hold their belief. A disadvantage of so doing is that when you do come across new information relevant to the question at hand, you are unaware of whether this information was already taken into account by the relevant experts. In other words, without knowing what the experts’ reasons are, you can’t tell whether you should increase your confidence when you come across new evidence that supports your belief. Things can go the other way as well. You might come across information that counts against your belief. However, if you are unaware of whether the experts you deferred to already accounted for this evidence, you are unable to appropriately respond to this information and manage your beliefs appopriately. In contrast, knowing the evidential basis for your beliefs allows you to better manage new information. You know what is already accounted for and what is not. Being able to adequately manage new information is valuable, yet this value can only be obtained by thinking for yourself – by appreciating what the relevant evidence is, and not simply deferring to the experts.

A third reason to think for yourself concerns your intellectual character. It is good to be open-minded, curious, intellectually humble, and to have intellectual perseverance. It is bad to be dogmatic, closeminded, intellectually arrogant, and so forth. We should do what we can to cultivate good intellectual character both in ourselves and in others. Being intellectually virtuous is a good way to be. Not only is thinking for yourself a good way to cultivate intellectual virtue, sometimes it is a requirement. For instance, being intellectually humble requires appreciating your own intellectual limitations. Thinking for yourself is a great way to acknowledge your own intellectual limitations. When you think for yourself, you can come to appreciate what you can’t figure out on your own – where you lack the requisite information or the ability to adequately process it. Similarly, it is hard to fathom how one could become intellectually perseverant without taking on intellectual projects of their own. It is only through thinking for yourself, and persisting through obstacles that you encounter, that this intellectual virtue can be cultivated. Revisiting our math text analogy is helpful here as well. You could simply look at the answers at the back if all you were after were true beliefs, but the true student of math wants more. They want to develop mathematical skills. These skills cannot be acquired by simply believing truths about the answers to the problems. Developing these skills requires working through the problems for yourself. The same is true of our intellectual character and inquiry more generally. If we want to become better thinkers, and we should, then taking on intellectual projects is the thing to do, it is the way to accomplish this goal. If we outsourced all of our intellectual projects, then we would not be able to develop intellectually virtuous character.

Sometimes thinking for yourself is necessary. Sometimes it is a luxury. However, thinking for yourself is always an opportunity for intellectual gains. In thinking for yourself you can come to gain understanding, be able to manage new information, and cultivate your intellectual character. That’s why you should think for yourself.

Picture: Boats by Timbarber